When the suffering ends, does the hope?
There's a reason that a lowly German monk was motivated to make changes in the Church that he loved after reading Romans. There is power in the words that Paul wrote to the believers in the Empire's capital.
The words are sweeping and hope-filled: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God."
This is no half-arrangement by any means. We were at war with God; our hearts were born in rebellion. But now, Paul says, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" if "we are justified by faith."
These are blessed words, words filled with the victory that Christ won on Golgotha. But Paul does not call the Christians, those who have faith in Jesus, to be happy-go-lucky types; no, he recognizes that -- especially for the Cristiani in Rome -- being a follower of The Way can be challenging, and not just for our call to live for Christ.
Paul writes, "we also boast in our sufferings."
You can imagine some Christian in Rome, gathered with his brothers and sisters in a house church listening to Paul's letter being read, stand up and say, "Now wait a second. Just yesterday Gaius was sent to the Coliseum to fight the lions and Lucius has disappeared: we're supposed to boast about this? Which one of us is next?"
It's a fair question. How can Paul genuinely boast in his sufferings? The answer is quick in coming: "we can also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."
Because Christ has saved us by grace through faith, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." Each of us, who believes, is the temple -- the literal host -- of the Third Person of the Trinity. God is with us, because the Holy Spirit, our comforter, will never leave us. He speaks to us. He loves us. And he pours God's love into our hearts. Because of that, our suffering leads to endurance; endurance develops into character. Character becomes hope, and "hope does not disappoint us."
For our hope is in Jesus and what he has done for us. And we do not hope in vain. "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. [...] But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us."
This is the hope that sustains us. This is the hope that animates our lives. This is the victory of our God. "For if while we were enemies [with God], we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by [Jesus'] life."
This is the hope that led Christians to sing hymns and give thanks to God as the lions bore down on them in the Coliseum. This is the hope that gave martyrs the strength to proclaim Christ in the face of being burned and tortured and slaughtered. This is the hope that compels Christians to lands where they know they will be persecuted and killed for the Gospel of Christ.
But what of us? My life has never been threatened for my commitment to Jesus. Today alone (and it is a Thursday), I could have attended at least two worship services this morning, and I have the opportunity to attend another at Noon. If my life is not in danger, must I still suffer, endure, develop character, and hope?
Our Enemy is subtle. The greatest faith and hope ever produced in the history of the Church has been that of the martyrs; when Christians are persecuted they cling to God, and Jesus carries them through to victory. The Evil One has seen his plans thwarted, and he has learned. In the United States today, for example, there is hardly any persecution; true, there are people in some places who are ostracized for the sake of Christ, and there are some whose jobs and education have been affected by their hope in Jesus.
There have been, however, no Christians thrown to the lions; there have been no Jesus-freaks sent to the gas chamber. The suffering we must undergo is the temptation to compromise our witness to gain a new friend, pick up a few more dollars, or climb a little higher on the social ladder. Our Enemy is subtle, and his challenge to us today is that we are fat, happy, and unchallenged. We are smug in our strength and not the strength of Christ.
It is not the love of Dillon that has been poured into my heart; it is the love of Christ, through his Holy Spirit. The victory of Christ on the cross is our hope. We must depend on Jesus, and we must be willing to stand up, take courage, and be courageous for the Truth. Jesus' love is the strength that we call upon to bear the sufferings of this world. "But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."
And because have been reconciled to Christ, it is up to us to open to his Spirit to accomplish the world-wide ministry of reconciliation of people with God. That is our mission, for which Christ has called us to hope.
Almighty God and Father, we confess that, even though our burden is small, we have not boldly proclaimed your love to others; we confess that we try to be good enough to please you, when you have already saved all those who believe.
We glorify you, O Lord, for you have redeemed us despite our sin and transgression. You have saved us from the Pit! You achieved victory over the Enemy and have reconciled to yourself all of those who accept your gift.
Save us, Lord, from arrogance and from hoping in our own strength. Help us, Holy Spirit, to listen for your still, small voice, that we may know and do your will.
We thank you, God, that you have loved us, even while we were still sinners. Thank you, Jesus, for dying for us, and thank you, Lord for raising us up as you raised up Christ; all this through Him, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.